Much of the coming of age landscape over the last few decades has seemed very suburban and very white, so it’s always refreshing when a director comes along to give a glimpse into the lives of young people who differ from the norm. Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird presents a coming of age story that doesn’t pull it’s punches, a raw, emotional journey through the adolescence of Korean teen Eun-hee, as she discovers the many facets to her life and sexuality. It’s not an easy road for (name), as neither home nor school bring her joy, and her only friend is the cool cram school teacher Yong-Ji.
We learn early on that Bora has thrown the regular sentimentality of the genre out the window here, as the litany of tragedies that befall our protagonist never feel forced, and are never mined for emotional manipulation, but are often very present. Eun-hee is also never painted as the perfect paragon of the angelic teen, as we see her manipulative and bratty side peek through tin many instances, up to shoplifting just for kicks, and suffering the consequences. Her homelife is awful, but never in the cliched way that we find in so many films, but instead in soft, subtle ways. The father is emotionally abusive, but the film does well to show the pain underneath it all, while the brother takes this abuse to a physical level, even after reprimands from his father.
Park Ji-Hu is forced to do a bit of heavy lifting as Eun-hee, as in the wrong hands this character could become bratty and unlikable, but Park turns in a fascinating, multi-faceted performance that keeps us entranced even in the most stark of exchanges. Fresh-faced and withdrawn, she’s a perfect stand-in for so many young people, an she plays her awkward feel much more earnest than many of the quirky, over-drawn characters that appear in many American films in the genre. Award-winning actress Kim Sae-byuk, fresh off her acclaimed performed in Hong Sang-soo’s Grass, brings her alluring force of personality to the role of Eun-hee’s mentor, and best friend, cram school teacher Yong-Ji. She’s offbeat without being kooky, a cool-headed dreamer that seems to pulled straight out of a French New Wave film, bringing a sense of respect and stability to a film that at times can feel a bit brutal. The biggest surprise in the film, however, comes from Jung In-gi as Eun-hee’s father, who turns in a surprising poignant performance as a man whose emotional withdrawal leads to large outbursts of feeling, including one devastating scene in which he simply openly weeps, an explosion of raw pathos that we so rarely get in film. Along with Bora’s nuanced writing, Jung has created something more than the usual “abusive dad trope”, instead showing us what happens when we dig deeper, examine where this abusive nature comes from, and how it can effect the mentality of even those perpetrating it.
Few people grow up in the idyllic suburban world in which we find most coming-of-age stories, and Bora has given us a teen story for those of us that has suffered and strove and come out the other side stronger. The film, like life, might not find the happiest of endings, leaving audience on a melancholy note, but never leaves us without hope that life can get better.